The world needs to let farmers recycle seeds

Shalini Bhutani

The linkage between agriculture and environment is well understood. But not everything that is sold as good for agriculture is good for the environment! As more new untested agricultural technologies hit the market, risks for the environment rise too.

New varieties of crops, high-yielding only if grown with  agricultural chemicals and abundant water, clearly have environmental implications. Similarly, potentially hazardous genetically engineered (GE) seeds may trigger irretrievable genetic change in agro ecological systems. Yet an environmental principle could well show the way forward for agriculture – that of recycling.

Recycle means to cause to repeat a cycle. In industry it is the process by which used materials are processed into new products to prevent waste of potentially useful materials, reduce consumption of fresh raw materials, cut down energy usage, minimise air and water pollution and lower green house gas emissions. Environmentalists have long been rallying for a more organised way to do this. Likewise, small farmers too are asking for their space to recycle. In small farm agriculture, the saving of seeds and re-using them in the next season is a time-honoured tradition. This recycling of seeds is what is under threat today.

Recycling seeds is direct competition for seed companies. ‘Reduce, resuse, recycle’ seeds clearly comes in the way of their business. Sure the seed, food and fuel industry is looking at agricultural waste and byproducts from farming. But that is purely to develop its carbon portfolios for profits.

Agro fuels so produced are yet to tip the energy balance in their favour. Meanwhile, large populations of farmers in agrarian societies like India and other parts of the world are the untapped market the seed industry is yet to totally conquer.

However, no better than in the (informal) seed sector would recycling the biological material produce a fresh supply of the same planting material. This is not guaranteed by company seeds. To assure themselves of a market, what the seed companies sell in the market are either increasingly hybrid or GE products. Hybrid seeds are the obvious choice of industry since the farmers need to buy the seeds every season. Likewise, GE seeds containing technologies that make the seed sterile, make it impossible for farmers to recycle their seeds. The practice of seed-saving is thus rendered redundant by such seed technologies.

Gap in policy

The country’s seed policies are precisely encouraging such technologies, rather than facilitating farmers to save their own seed. The ministry of agriculture (MoA) has a plan to increase the Seed Replacement Rate (SRR). As explained by MoA, seed replacement rate is the percentage of area sown out of total area of crop planted in the season by using certified/quality seeds other than the farm-saved seed. In the official view the farmers’ reliance on farm saved seeds is seen as something that needs to be corrected. There is an obvious gap in law and policy for the promotion of farmers’ seeds.

The proposed Seed Bill is about putting in place marketing rules for certified seeds of ‘quality.’ Even in the India’s National Seeds Policy 2002 the enhancement of SRR is one of the thrust areas. The intent is to replace the use of farm-saved seeds. The country’s National Seed Plan expressly aims at ensuring the SRR at 25 per cent for self-pollinated crops, 35 per cent for cross-pollinating crops and 100 per cent for hybrids. To be able to meet the demand of seed as per projections of this plan, several quintals of seeds have to be produced and the distributed to farmers across the rural landscape.

The key players envisaged in seed production are the seed industry. The government is also fostering public-private partnerships with state agricultural universities and the State Farms Corporation of India (SFCI). Seed production is the main activity at SFCI farms. Yet the reality is that the National Seed Corporation and the State Seed Corporations are not able to supply the quality and quantity of seeds that farmers need.
Interestingly, both the public and private seed sector actively prospect for farmers’ varieties as a base to build new seed products on. That explains the official emphasis on ex situ conservation and the storing away of traditional varieties in centralised collections. And there seems to a one-way traffic in terms of seed and planting materials being collected by state agencies, be it agricultural universities, research institutes, gene banks or the plant authority. The seeds that come out of these institutions are not re-usable by farmers. But the dichotomy of the situation is that farmers’ seed is considered inferior as against ‘quality’ seed mass manufactured by industry.

There is worldwide concern about the environmental impacts of achieving global food production targets. Yet growing more with less is what small farm agriculture allows. It provides a ready-made low-carbon solution for mitigating global climate change. At the centre of the many small diverse adaptive decentralised food production models are local seeds. Recycling these will also help to keep farmers as the original producers of seeds. So yes the world needs to recycle, but most of all it needs to let farmers’ recycle their own seeds.

(The writer specialises in agriculture and biodiversity issues)


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